herald

Sunday 11 December 2016

It can be tricky, but being friends with your ex is best for children

There's no such thing as a clean slate when a couple part and there are children involved. Amid all the 'conscious uncoupling' jokes, Chris and Gwyneth seem to be managing well, says

Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin take their kids, Apple and Moses to Toys
Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin take their kids, Apple and Moses to Toys "R" Us in Culver City
Dr. David Carey
Patricia Kearns

The may have 'consciously uncoupled' a year ago but Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin are keeping a civilised front for the sake of their children, Apple and Moses.

The A-list couple got together this month to celebrate their son's 9th birthday, showing the world that it's possible to split and remain amicable, even if, in some cases, it's just for the emotional wellbeing of the children.

Patricia Kearns has two grown up children. She separated from their father when they were young adults and says while this year marks the 20th anniversary of divorce legislation in Ireland, there hasn't always been a huge amount of support for people who were coping with a break up - so earlier this year she set up a new website and support network called www.separated.ie

"I have two grown up children who where 21 and 18 when we separated," she says. "Often parents stay together for the sake of the children - because they don't want theirs to be a 'broken home'.

reaction

"However, in many cases, more damage is caused to the children as they experience a dysfunctional relationship first-hand and learn wrong lessons as to how to conduct their own relationships in the future.

"The idea for Separated.ie came from my own personal experience and the experience of my friends, coupled with market research and a survey into attitudes towards divorce in Ireland that I have conducted.

"The number of divorced people in Ireland has increased by over 150pc in the last Census and my Separated.ie survey revealed that the biggest worry for Irish people contemplating separation or divorce is the reaction of their children.

"Going through separation is one of the toughest situations you will face as a parent. Not only do you have to deal with the practicalities and your own feelings of hurt, anger and bewilderment, you also have to consider the needs and feelings of your children.

"They will remember the moment they are told their parents are separating for the rest of their lives so it is natural to worry and agonise about how best to share this information, about the effect it will have on them and how they will respond."

The mother-of two says there are a number of ways to ensure your children are protected from the emotional fallout of divorce or separation.

"Ideally, both parents should tell the children together even if this means making a temporary truce in ongoing conflicts," she advises.

"Be prepared, it will be extremely difficult and upsetting for everyone but it is important to demonstrate strength and that both of you are in agreement that this is for the best.

"Children need to be told what to expect and need clear expectations in straightforward language so they can understand what is going on.

"They also need lots of reassurance about ongoing involvement with the parent who is leaving and will need time to take it all in and express their worries and questions.

It is especially important not to argue in front of children and make sure you inform teachers or carers so they can also offer support.

feelings

But the most crucial aspect is to make sure they know they are loved by both parents and this will never change no matter what the circumstances.

Patricia says that regardless of marital status, children need both parents where possible. So it is important that their feelings and emotions are paramount during any divorce or separation process.

"Children love both of their parents equally and unconditionally and they want to continue contact with both of them as part of their family," she says.

"In our experience at www.separated.ie the first few months of a separation are so important for the child as they need to see that although one parent has moved out, little else has changed.

"They need to know they have not 'lost' one parent, so constant and regular contact from that parent reassures the children that although they are living elsewhere, they remain actively involved in their lives.

"For minimum impact on your children, both parents should aim to be in agreement with this, regardless of circumstances, particularly in the early stages.

Ideally, they should mutually agree to access arrangements, and a flexible attitude to changing circumstances and work commitments is helpful, rather than using it as a point of conflict.

For children, seeing their parents argue over access is damaging and leads to feelings of guilt - also it is not helpful to their wellbeing.

"The parent who lives with the children needs to show understanding towards the other parent who up to now saw their children every day," Patricia explains. "They need to realise how hard this is for them to now live alone without their children. Even though you have more time with the children, this does not mean that you have more rights over them, and all major decisions for their welfare still needs to be jointly discussed.

"However if there is any risk whatsoever to children's welfare by being with one or other parent, then this needs to be addressed separately through suitable channels."

While the parent living with the children needs to mindful of the needs of the other parent, likewise, the parent living outside the family home, should also show some understanding.

"The parent who is 'living out' should realise how demanding life is on the other parent who now has all the routine everyday jobs on their own, while dealing with the ongoing emotional changes in both themselves and their children," says Kearns.

"But most importantly children and access issues should not be used as a weapon for getting a result from the other parent. Too often this is the case and in essence this means that the children are being made suffer in order for one parent to gain control over some particular issue."

Child psychologist, David Carey says that Paltrow and Martin's type of separated parenting is very important as a means of helping children cope with the fact that their mum and dad are no longer together.

And the initial strength of the relationship has a huge bearing on how the couple react after separation.

"The impact of divorce and separation on children is hugely related to how the parents got along before they went separate ways," he says.

"The more acrimonious the relationship the more damaging it will have been for the children. A family home filled with arguing, stony silence and bad language damages children terribly.

"When a parent says horrible things about their former partner to the children it is like dropping an emotional virus into their spirit. If parents can't remain at least neutral they would be better off saying nothing at all."

Patricia underlines how important it is to protect your children. "Ultimately parents shape how happy or unhappy children are, so in separation, children should be put at the centre of everything."

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